BY J.J. MESSNER DE LATOUR AND FIONA GRATHWOHL
Brexit. In many ways, it would be easy to sum up the fortunes of the United Kingdom over the last five years with this one widely known portmanteau that has not only been the catchphrase for Britain’s exit from the European Union, but has also become a catchphrase for wider division and instability besetting the world’s seventh-largest economy. Without a doubt, the Brexit issue was a leading driver behind the U.K. rating as one of the ten most worsened countries on the Fragile States Index (FSI) in 2020, now for the second year in a row. This is perhaps unsurprising, as the country experienced a historic year as parliament and the governments of Prime Minister Theresa May and later Boris Johnson struggled to agree on the best terms for leaving the European Union.
The search for internal agreement on the terms of a Brexit deal resulted in political deadlock as Brexit hardliners were unwilling to accept former Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit deal. As a result, the original Brexit date of March 29, 2019 was pushed back multiple times, to April 12, then October 31, and then again to January 31, 2020. In turn, this period was punctuated with the intervening departure of May and the ascension of Johnson, with hopes that a new Prime Minister could have better success in delivering a deal. This period also witnessed extreme political polarization, reflected in an increase in the Factionalized Elites indicator.
More uncertainty was to follow as Johnson requested the Queen to prorogue, or suspend, parliament for five weeks from the beginning of September until mid-October. This request was both usual and unusual. Despite not occurring since 2017, such a temporary shut-down of parliament typically happens ceremonially every Autumn. What made this request exceptional was the length of time that the requested prorogation would suspend parliament, and its occurrence despite a clear urgency that parliament continue to go about its business ahead of the upcoming Brexit decision deadline. Johnson was subsequently rebuked by a court ruling that unanimously held that the request was unlawful, in that it prevented parliament from carrying out its normal duties amidst the oncoming Brexit decision. Though political maneuvering and machinations are hardly new or unique to any particular country or political system, what made this episode remarkable was its erosion of the common, shared acceptance of constitutional norms all within a vacuum of any written constitution. The U.K.’s unique unwritten constitutional system relies on a shared value system, and it becomes vulnerable once that value system, or the ‘rules of the game,’ is no longer shared or agreed.
It would be wrong to suggest that Brexit is a singular issue driving Britain’s difficulties. Though Brexit was certainly the headline act of British politics in 2020, the circumstances around it — including the failure to deliver Brexit within the year and an unorthodox prorogation of parliament — revealed cracks in the United Kingdom’s governmental system and a lack of certainty around its hitherto unwritten constitution. Indeed, when the Brexit referendum first delivered its somewhat unexpected result in 2016, Fund for Peace wrote just after the referendum that “as painful as Brexit will undoubtedly be politically and economically, it is perhaps the tip of a much larger iceberg, socially.” We identified that the Brexit referendum occurred after a five-year trend of worsening cohesion indicators (which includes Security Apparatus, Group Grievance, and Factionalized Elites) that was at the time the seventh most worsened of any country for that time period, pointing to deep social, economic, and political divisions that preceded, and were independent of, the Brexit campaign. In this year’s FSI rankings, the United Kingdom saw its indicator scores worsen for State Legitimacy (by 0.6 points), and Human Rights, Factionalized Elites, and Security Apparatus (each by 0.3 points). Group grievance has been steadily worsening since 2010, with a score of 4.1 in 2010 and 6.4 from 2017 onwards. Additionally, the Factionalized Elites Indicator steeply worsened 2.3 points in the past four years.
While the temptation may be to focus on Brexit as the primary disruption to social cohesion in the country, and while it obviously has played a significant role in how politics and social division have played out, it is important to look at the frailty of the government as a whole. Brexit is not just a catalyst of a polarized, gridlocked system, but a symptom of it. Again, this is a condition that Fund for Peace foresaw in 2016 —
“The Brexit vote presents enormous challenges for the British and for Europe — and in turn, for the world. But as unsettling as the political and economic ramifications are for Britain and Europe, what is perhaps more so are the underlying socio-economic and political conditions of worsening division within Britain, being fueled by divisive politics. The British will have their hands full over the coming months and years with managing their exit from the European Union as smoothly as possible. What will take longer to manage is decontaminating toxic political discourse and unifying a divided society.”
Beyond the social and political pressures, the United Kingdom’s Economy indicator worsened in 2019 for the first time since 2013 as economic growth slowed to barely above zero in the last quarter of 2019. This was the worst economic growth slowdown in the country’s history outside of a recession in the post-war period. The economy is likely to face only more uncertainty as the U.K. is now in an 11-month transition period where it still abides by the European bloc rules and regulations until the terms of the Brexit deal are decided. Business investment has steeply declined since 2017 and will continue to do so even if a Brexit deal is agreed upon. Further, economic activity is predicted to be below trend and unemployment will continue to increase, as will public deficit. Undoubtedly, the ramifications of COVID-19, the scale of which remain unclear, will likely further weigh heavily on the British economic outlook.
Looking forward, there is clearly much uncertainty still, and much work to be done. Though the Brexit process is nearing its conclusion, this is less the beginning of the end and more likely the end of the beginning as the U.K. now faces a new political and economic reality. Brexit is not the sole cause of the U.K.’s current instability — it is both a catalyst and a symptom of increasingly dysfunctional politics and decreasingly harmonious social order. However, perhaps the greatest legacy of Brexit will be to have laid bare the simmering social tensions, economic frailties, and political vulnerabilities of an unexpectedly brittle system, problems that will likely persist well after the Brexit process has concluded.
1. Underlying Concerns Create a Worrying Outlook for Britain Beyond Brexit. URL located at: https://fundforpeace.org/2016/06/24/underlying-concerns-create-a-worrying-outlook-for-britain-beyond-brexit/